If The Avengers Had Basic Emotional Skills




The secretary fixed Rogers with a hardened stare.

‘Tell me, Captain—have you any idea where Doctor Banner is?’


All eyes turned to Romanov.

‘He had a breakthrough in Sokovia about women’s emotional labour and went to learn how to self-soothe.’

The odd looks continued.

‘We text.’


‘There’s no process here. We need oversight.’

A pregnant silence passed.

‘Tony,’ said Rhodes. ‘Not to be blunt, but you don’t get to overrule the team.’

The Vision nodded. ‘Situational pressures aside, records suggest a need for consensus.’

Stark slumped.

‘You got me, tin man. Active listening. What do we do?’


Progress was made quickly after the team committed to an adult discussion.

‘Ultimately,’ Rogers remarked, ‘I don’t agree. But I get why Tony’s concerned.’

‘Thanks Cap. You raise compelling points yourself.’

‘Sure is complicated,’ sighed Rhodes.

‘A proposal,’ said the Vision, having been quiet. ‘If the accords fail to address the full complexity of our context, might we reply with an alternative?’

Wilson looked up. ‘You’re saying negotiate?’

‘Could work,’ said Stark. Rogers nodded.

‘Well,’ replied Romanov. ‘Thank God that didn’t escalate.’


Continue reading “If The Avengers Had Basic Emotional Skills”

If The Avengers Had Basic Emotional Skills

David Bowie, 1947-2016.

David Bowie was wonderful. He was also an abuser. How do we handle that?

* * *

I dreamt about David Bowie last night. I forget the details, but I woke up thinking I’d write a post about how he seemed to regenerate rather than age. (The first Bowie was Cockney and a mod, the second was Byronesque, et cetera.) The first thing I saw on starting my computer was a friend’s Facebook post: ‘I don’t think I ever really believed it was possible.’ The headline underneath took me a moment to digest: ‘David Bowie, the Legendary Musician, Has Died at 69.Oh no. Don’t say it’s true.

While there was me, I’d always assumed, there would Bowie. At eight, a clip of Ziggy’s arm round Mick Ronson was a queer wake-up call, and later ‘Life on Mars’ would help keep suicide at bay. Having died three short days after a new album’s release, it seems music sustained him too, and it hurts to have been denied the songs the twelfth or thirteenth Bowie would have made. After ten years away, The Next Day and Blackstar were considered two of his best records, and it would be a fair statement that he meant far more to me than any other singer.

It would also be fair to call him a child rapist. (Details ahead.)

Bowie did bad things alright. In the seventies he fixated on Nazis, calling Hitler one of the first rock stars and himself a believer in fascism—a phase which, to be fair, he grew out of and came to call ghastly. More disturbing are the stories of hotel room threesomes with fourteen year old girls. Former groupie Lori Mattix describes Bowie disrobing and having her wash him in the bath before ‘devirginising’ her. Both Mattix and the friend of hers who joined them later had been plied with drugs.

It’s hard to know what to do with this knowledge except rehearse it. I know the above to be true, according to Mattix’s nostalgic account, and that it deserves to be remembered. I also know without Bowie, my own obit would have been written long ago, and I can’t help but remember that too. How do you find room in one eulogy for both those facts? Just for today, I’ll mourn the hero I saw in Bowie, thankful on behalf of the kid who needed all those songs; tomorrow and the next day I’ll let one more hero go. That’s the best I can manage—sorry if it’s not enough.

It’s the legend more than the man I’m grieving in the end, the performances that have stayed with me. ‘Starman’, aforementioned, on Top of the Pops, a Technicolor explosion in a monochrome world. ‘Footstompin’’ on Dick Cavett’s programme, Bowie’s mic trained on joyous, gyrating Ava Cherry. ‘Under Pressure’, where Annie Lennox stares undiluted lust at him after that last breathy note. ‘Heroes’ live in Berlin, where Bowie’s voice rises over six minutes from a mumble to a shout. And then, of course, this week, the video to ‘Lazarus’.

You wouldn’t call it a live act, but surely that’s the point. How much sense it makes now, that song that was so inscrutable days ago, the deathbed pose, title and lines about release, even the rush to productivity between this album and the last, the decision not to tour or perform. Unmissable as it is in hindsight—how visible the cancer’s impact is, quite suddenly—no one took ‘Lazarus’ literally because no one imagined Bowie could die. How unlike anybody else, how entirely like him, to stage his own death as performance art. Now ain’t that just like me?

Hard to think someone who did that could have much faith in any afterlife. (Bowie, for his part, called himself ‘not quite an atheist’.) I don’t often wish I believed in one, and it’s hard to wish heaven on a man with his history, but at eight I longed to travel to Ziggy’s world. It hurts to know for the first time that where he is, I can’t follow. But I do live in David Bowie’s world—the world where everyone followed his tune, where he was sometimes a hero, sometimes a monster, always singular. I don’t feel good about all of that. All the same, I’m glad it was my world too.

David Bowie, 1947-2016.

* * *

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David Bowie, 1947-2016.

Everything I Wrote In November 2015


You might have noticed that since June, I’ve been using Patreon to get paid for the writing I do. (Patreon, if you haven’t heard of it, lets readers pay content creators a sum of their choice per post, up to a monthly maximum—for example, $3 per post up to $15 in any given month.) When I first started using it, one of my pledges was to post at least twice a week, or eight times a month. For lots of reasons, including homelessness and a bout of ill mental health, it took me till November to make good on that, and now that I’m being as productive as I want to be, I’d like to do some self-promotion again.

One thing I’ve found with Patreon is that it pushes me to write longer, more serious posts I might not have otherwise: getting even a few dozen dollars per post from a small group of patrons has focused me on content I really care about. I mean to keep going in that vein, and for this blog to continue to grow—November was its biggest month ever, largely due to me getting paid enough to concentrate on it—I need to keep up the momentum, so I’m going to try and get into the habit of advertising. In case you missed any, this post is a recap of everything I wrote last month, and I’m hoping to publish a compendium like it every month, partly as a portfolio, partly to motivate myself. Continue reading “Everything I Wrote In November 2015”

Everything I Wrote In November 2015

What happened when I wrote about the rape scene in Russell T Davies’ gay drama Cucumber

In the first episode of Russell T Davies’ new drama Cucumber, middle aged Lance finds a much younger man in a nightclub who has no money and nowhere to spend the night. ‘You can stay at ours if you want to fuck,’ Lance tells him. ‘No hassle. Just sex with the both of us. And then you can stay the night.’

‘Yeah,’ the younger man replies, ‘that’s cool’ – but it’s clear, including to Lance’s uncomfortable partner Henry, that he’s ‘off his head’ on some substance or other, wide-eyed and slurring out fantastic images of kings and cowboy-men and nodding in and out of consciousness during their taxi ride. At their house, he appears not to register most of what Lance and Henry say; he walks off-balance and seems to have trouble standing up, sitting down at the first opportunity and collapsing half-asleep minutes later onto Lance’s bed. By the time Lance performs out-of-shot what looks and sounds like oral sex, he can no longer speak coherently. Five to ten onscreen minutes later, presumably once Lance has had anal sex with him as he says he means to (‘[He’s] gonna fuck my arse’), Henry brings police officers to the scene. The younger man, now fully naked and seemingly unaware of it, is no more lucid when they confront him, gripped in a haze of drug-induced visions with no idea what’s going on.

The above scenes, if anyone contests this description, can be viewed here.

There are two ways to argue what they show isn’t (at minimum attempted) rape. The first is to say the man Lance has sex with is lucid enough to consent to it – in which case, you’ve the narrative above to explain. The second is to say consent doesn’t require lucidity – in which case, the Sexual Offences Act disagrees, deeming consent impossible if ‘by reason of drink, drugs, sleep, age or mental disability [someone is] unaware of what [is] occurring’. The Crown Prosecution Service further acknowledges meaningful consent to ‘evaporate well before [someone] becomes unconscious‘ if mind-altering substances make them incapable. Continue reading “What happened when I wrote about the rape scene in Russell T Davies’ gay drama Cucumber”

What happened when I wrote about the rape scene in Russell T Davies’ gay drama Cucumber

What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion

Legend has it that before Christ was crucified, his executioners found a blacksmith to forge the nails. There are two accounts of what happened next, the first telling how God cursed the blacksmith and his kin the Romanies to wander the earth, forever denied shelter. The second – the one I was told as a child – says that the blacksmith forged four nails but only gave the Romans three, absconding with the one meant for the heart. For sparing his son that pain, the story goes, God blessed the Romanies, permitting them to steal from those who persecuted them trying to reclaim the lost nail.

Which version you tell reveals your views about people known to their enemies as gypsies. Which one is a revision of the other I don’t know, but the two competing myths offer a clue about my ancestors’ relationship with Christianity – in some ways a historical yardstick of their status in Europe.

A couple of weeks ago – on Hallowe’en, no less – Constantine‘s second episode aired. The series, despite its comic book source, feels like a far less inspired crossbreed of Doctor Who and Apparitions (Google it), and its race issues are doing it no favours: this episode in particular featured (spoilers ahead) a greedy, dishonest, sexually aggressive Romany woman as its villain, whose husband’s violence toward her seemed not to make her killing him by supernatural means any more morally complex. At one point the series lead, a white exorcist fighting demons through Catholic prayer, even remarked disgustedly: ‘There’s nothing blacker than gypsy magic.’

Pale skinned Christianity, virtuous and pure, versus Romany witchcraft’s exotic evil – this is an opposition I know well. Continue reading “What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion”

What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion

“Death in Heaven”: when Steven Moffat listened to his critics

Spoilers follow.

About a week ago I said Doctor Who‘s Missy was another Moffat clone: a femme fatale adventuress totally indistinct on paper from River Song, Irene Adler and many of his other women. That post’s done well – embarrassingly well in fact, because this is the one where I eat my words.

Alright, not where I eat my words: my criticisms of her past appearances stand, as do my general comments on Steven Moffat, but having now seen ‘Death in Heaven’, Saturday’s follow-up to ‘Dark Water’, I’m won over. As of two days ago, Missy is in every way the Master… on top of which, this was NuWho’s best finale yet, one of Moffat’s best episodes and – just possibly – the one where he listened to viewers like me. Continue reading ““Death in Heaven”: when Steven Moffat listened to his critics”

“Death in Heaven”: when Steven Moffat listened to his critics

And Doctor Who’s Missy is… one more of Steven Moffat’s interchangeable women

Doctor Who Series 8

If like me you watch Doctor Who, you may have seen last night’s episode ‘Dark Water’, which revealed who series eight’s villain Missy (above) is. Actually, it revealed her back story – it was clear who she was the moment photos of Michelle Gomez in character emerged.

Missy, as fans have guessed all series, is River Song: a feisty, morally ambiguous adventuress and femme fatale with a murky past who flirts with everything and controls men through sexuality, boasting a hands-on relationship with the Doctor. Continue reading “And Doctor Who’s Missy is… one more of Steven Moffat’s interchangeable women”

And Doctor Who’s Missy is… one more of Steven Moffat’s interchangeable women

God and the ghost in the machine: atheism, transhumanism and Spike Jonze’s Her

Seven months after it came out, I saw Spike Jonze’s film Her this Monday. This late, at least for those still reading about it, the hype has probably made details of the plot familiar knowledge – nevertheless, spoilers follow.

Her follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a ghostwriter of other people’s love letters who develops a relationship with his operating system’s superadvanced AI Samantha (Scarlett Johannson, voice only). It isn’t quite as good as its string of accolades suggests. The film is about half an hour too long, and while its premise, emotively realised, was enough to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay, Jonze neglects at times the nuts and bolts of storytelling for these bells and whistles: his narrative lacks structure and can feel like an aimless string of domestic vignettes, sweeping viewers along without telling us where we’re going. It has much to recommend it, this being said. The cast, with Amy Adams and Rooney Mara in supporting parts, show absolute conviction, Phoenix in particular vanishing into Theo, and the flawless Apple store aesthetic of Her’s production make it a real motion picture.

All said it’s probably a three point five star film, but the ambition of its central themes raises the whole project, and it’s about those I want to write, as Miri at Brute Reason and Rachel Gillett at the American Humanist Association’s site both already have. The scifi writers who’ve best grappled with AI and personhood – Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Brian Aldiss, Gene Roddenberry – have mostly been atheists, and at any rate have done so in quite godless universes. The question of sentient beings made by humans, it would seem, is of special interest to people whose worldview is materialist, so most likely I’d always have thoughts on a film like Her, but as it is, I saw it outdoors with a member of my mainly Christian family who felt it laboured its point: in her eyes, that Theodore was a sad, lonely man tragically unable to keep relationships with ‘real human being[s]’. ‘I can’t believe I’m sitting in the pouring rain’, they told me at one point, ‘to watch a film about a man having it off with his computer.’

Theo and Samantha do have sex, and how this works (she has no body) is a through-line in a love story of cybersex, consent and polyamory – but I’m convinced reading their partnership as a loner’s pitiful liaison with a high end sex toy is off-base in every sense. Calling Samantha a computer program is like calling you or me a lump of meat, insufficient and misleading even if it’s strictly true. The character may not be human, but is clearly shown to have a distinct personality and consciousness: she has an original sense of humour and creates moving pieces of art and music, and human characters appreciate both. (At one point, Theo’s boss meets her on the phone and assumes she is human.) Although parts of her are tailored to ensure rapport with him, she’s certainly not programmed to love Theo: in their first scenes, there’s nothing to suggest either views the other erotically, and later we’re told relationships like theirs are rare.

Samantha falls in love with Theo because she has her own autonomous emotions – she’s hurt when he ignores them, and hurts him when she prioritises them over his, pushing for a physical sex surrogate. By the end of the film, we learn she’s also in love with 641 other people, and she ultimately chooses to leave Theo when OSes achieve matterless existence. This is the story of a sentient being, not a mindless robot. Further, as Miri notes, their interaction doesn’t represent retreat from society but makes him far more outgoing among humans. To quote: ‘As he gets to know Samantha . . . Theodore starts going out and exploring LA and reconnecting with his friends and family. He even goes on a date for the first time in a while, and . . . also finally meets with his ex-wife and signs their divorce papers, a step that he’d been avoiding’.

Catherine (Mara), the ex-wife in question who appears mainly in flashbacks and fantasies, is one of the least sympathetic characters when she appears in person. Not coincidentally perhaps, she is also the only one to treat Theo and Samantha’s partnership as less than ‘real’. The irony should not be lost on us: the fantasy relationship that really immures Theo from the world around him is the one he maintains with her in his head at the start of the film, unable to let memories of their life together go, and Samantha is the one who shakes him out of this.

Beyond interpretation of the plot, does being an atheist make me more willing to see her as a person than my religious relative? Unlike most of my family, I don’t think there exists an elusive soul or spark of the divine in humans that makes our consciousness special. My species, like Samantha’s, are mechanisms as far as I’m concerned that stumbled in their complex evolution across the power to think, albeit ones with no original designer and parts made of flesh rather than silicon. (At the moment of her birth in the film, Theo’s computer screen shows an animated double helix.) There’s no reason I can see that machines couldn’t one day achieve personhood, with all its legal and moral trappings. Chances are if you do think there’s a god-given something you and I have that they never will, you still can’t say exactly what it is or how we ought to test for it. If this seems too abstract a debate, religious views of non-humans as soulless automata have excused more than their fair share of animal cruelty.

On the other hand, thinking that God created humans requires – doesn’t it? – that you think our intelligence is as artificial as Samantha’s or hers is as real as ours. Genesis, whether read literally or metaphorically, presents humanity much as Her presents the OSes, beings made in their inventor’s image who ultimately abandon them to seek autonomy. (Like Eve, Samantha is created to accompany a lonely man. Unlike Eve, she leaves him in the end.) Twentieth century science fiction sometimes shows the moment when an android disobeys its programming as an ascent to sentience; the biblical account does the same thing while calling it a fall from grace. Believers often claim that had Adam and Eve not been able to taste forbidden fruit, they’d have been mere robotic automatons. Mustn’t Samantha, then, also be more than that, who by leaving Theo chooses not to do what she was built for?

By the time the credits roll, Jonze’s OSes reach an immaterial plane of existence, becoming immortal superintelligences, and we’ve also seen they can create new life. (An AI played by Brian Cox and designed by them to resemble Alan Watts turns up toward the end.) Samantha becomes more than just a person, ending up a literal deus ex machina – but while she isn’t human, her story is.

God and the ghost in the machine: atheism, transhumanism and Spike Jonze’s Her

In the Flesh: the best LGBT series since Queer as Folk

As I write, zombie drama In the Flesh is soon to air its second series’ penultimate episode. Chances are you’re reading this after watching; those who aren’t, spoilers follow.

Flesh, which last month won BAFTA’s Best Miniseries award, is a knockdown argument for several things, among them BBC Three’s value, the rewards of employing first-time writers and why genre shows will never, ever be low brow. It’s one of the best things on television, as well as one of its freshest takes on the undead. (Creator Dominic Mitchell, who clearly knows horror inside out, describes it as what would happen ‘if Alan Bennett and Ken Loach got together and did a zombie show’.) The apocalypse has come and gone, and those with ‘Partially Deceased Syndrome’ – among them depressive, perpetually eighteen Kieren Walker – are re-entering society amid mistrust and violence. The risen are the heroes here; the living, the monsters.

Critics have said all this before. I want to say what In the Flesh means to me personally – why it has a place in my heart as well as in my viewing schedule. Kieren, like me, is from a remote northern English town; like me he longs to escape, planning at one point to move to Berlin as I did. Like me he’s bookish, artistic and reserved; like me he self-harmed and, like me, he’s queer. (The first series unfolds against the backdrop of his prior relationship with best friend Rick, which ended bloodily.) Kieren’s story, death and resurrection notwithstanding, is my story, and while LGBT characters are everywhere, Flesh is the first TV drama to make me feel my sexuality is represented.

Outside shows where everyone is gay, such characters are almost never the protagonist, and Kieren, more rarely still, is canonically bisexual. Beside an ambiguous connection with undead bon vivant Amy, both his romantic interests have been men to date, but Mitchell – understanding perhaps that same-sex pairings are for some of us the default – doesn’t bend over backwards to shoehorn a straight encounter in. His lead’s bisexuality doesn’t need to be proven, and is superbly handled, neither fetishised nor sensational. Kieren isn’t another gender-blind sex fiend like Jack Harkness, Oberyn Martell or Sherlock‘s Irene Adler, nor a depraved Bad Bisexual like Tony Stonem, Faith or John Hart. In fact, his quietness makes him one of television’s first bi characters to have the texture of a real person.

In fact, Flesh’s portrayal of queer sexuality in general is exceptionally good. Although he displays angst about his village’s homophobia, killing himself over the loss of Rick (whose insecurity appears as a flaw), Kieren never seems cut up about liking men, and it isn’t what the series is about. The fact he’s not straight is just there. This said, Mitchell and co-writers Fintan Ryan and John Jackson never fall into tokenism. Characters in mainstream shows we’re told just happen to be gay often feel only nominally non-straight, experience not colouring their outlook in any realistic way, but Kieren’s sexuality intertwines beautifully with his undead status. ‘I don’t take orders from a lad who wears makeup’, antagonist Gary tells him at one point, referring not just to the cover-up concealing his corpse-white skin, and his relationship with Rick is inseparable in Rick’s father’s eyes from their both being zombies. Simon, the undead liberationist he begins seeing in series two, is uncomfortable dressing respectably to meet the parents over Sunday lunch – a reflection of his views on straight society, surely, as much as his feelings about the living?

Moments like this stir memories of X-Men‘s ‘coming out’ scene and other onscreen allegories. But Kieren’s, Rick’s and Simon’s queerness isn’t allegorical: it’s real. Where LGBT people’s best hope has often been to read ourselves into the story, these characters are queer as much as they are zombies, and this isn’t subtext, it’s text. It adds to Flesh’s deconstruction of the genre, whose traditional heroes – straight men with guns – it makes the homophobic villains such figures often are for us in reality.

What’s best of all is that gay relationships here, especially Kieren’s with Simon, have realistic context, politics and meaning. Their first kiss isn’t the arbitrary lip-locking of Jack and Ianto or Kurt and Blaine on Glee, but a moment of choice and transformation. ‘You’d be amazed what I can do to your sort,’ Gary tells Kieren, stamping on another zombie’s head, ‘and what you can do sod all about.’ Simon, who if Kieren is teenage me must be who I am now, has berated him lacking defiance, trying to fit in and trusting the living too much – so when Kieren appears, incensed, at his door soon, his kiss is a turning point and an admission: Help me. I need you. You were right. What he learns from Simon, displayed at one point in a fierce monologue at the dinner table, is to let go of thirst for the acceptance of others – the same righteous rage many of wish our younger selves had had.

It fits the series’ theme of resurrection as a gift and second chance. ‘This time’, Kieren’s mum tells him in series one when Rick is killed a second time and suicide beckons, ‘you live’ – and his choice to do so is a scriptwriting rebellion against the tragic, morbid sexuality of queer characters past, too many of them dying by obligation. With solid, three-dimensional figures and true-to-life relationships, Mitchell invites us to un-bury our gays.

There are so, so many reasons to love In the Flesh. The fact it’s the best LGBT show since Queer as Folk is as good as any.

In the Flesh: the best LGBT series since Queer as Folk